Final Four Remain

By: Jason Nowe
Jul 1, 2006



TOKYO, July 1 — In the new frontier that is the post Fuji TV era, Dream Stage Entertainment once again set up shop in the company’s unofficial home, Saitama Super Arena, to stage the second round of the PRIDE Open-Weight Grand Prix.

It has been a tough couple of weeks for the company, going through the harsh transition of being carried by a major network only to have the rug pulled out from under it on June 5 — “Black Monday” — without any prior notice.

Gone with Fuji’s departure are the big corporate dollars that the national broadcaster brought to the table. PRIDE’s survival is now on the shoulders of the fans that come to the arena.

Some wondered what changes, if any, there would be between the “old” and “new” PRIDE. For the most part the production levels were the same, despite some graphics changes and a new pre-fight video voice. One thing that didn’t change however, are the dynamite match-ups that PRIDE has become famous for putting together.

Headlining the event were the four Grand Prix fights — Mirko Filipovic (Pictures) vs. Hidehiko Yoshida (Pictures); Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) vs. Kazuyuki Fujita (Pictures); Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pictures) vs. Fabricio Werdum (Pictures); Josh Barnett (Pictures) vs. Mark Hunt (Pictures).

Since Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures)’s departure from the company in May, DSE has really pushed Yoshida as the new figurehead of the promotion. In the eyes of the Japanese public, the judoka’s battle with Naoya Ogawa (Pictures) at PRIDE’s New Year’s Eve event, “Shockwave,” was the biggest match in the history of the promotion.

Mirko “Cro Cop” has proven his sprawl against wrestlers such as Mark Coleman (Pictures), Kevin Randleman (Pictures) and Josh Barnett (Pictures). But how would he fare against the trips and throws of an Olympic judo gold medalist?

The first round of this bout started cautiously, with Yoshida circling the ring. After trading a few punches, the Japanese fighter shot for the single-leg takedown, only to end up in the clinch. Moments later, Yoshida attempted a classic judo hip toss, which “Cro Cop” narrowly escaped.

From here on out “Cro Cop” utilized his best weapon — not high, but rather low kicks. After chopping down a few well timed bombs to his Yoshida’s legs, it was blatantly obvious that the limping judoka was in major trouble.

With Yoshida no longer able to take shots or step in on his punches, “Cro Cop” knocked him to the mat with a well placed uppercut. Upon slowly answering the call from the Croatian to get back to his feet, Yoshida was soon back on the mat after receiving a powerful low kick to the outside of his left leg. A PRIDE official threw in the towel and the referee called a stop to the match.

This bout truly proved the effectiveness of low kicks in MMA. Without your legs, it’s impossible to mount any kind of offense. In his post-fight interview, “Cro Cop” stated that he knew kick defense was not a strong point of Yoshida’s and that after the first few kicks landed, he knew that he would defeat the Japanese fighter with a low kick.

After missing the first round of the Open-Weight Grand Prix due to a contract dispute, PRIDE 205-pound champion Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) was thrown into the second round mix when it was announced current PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) could not participate due to a nagging hand injury.

The Chute Boxe fighter was matched up against Japanese juggernaut Kazuyuki Fujita (Pictures). As soon as this bout was announced, it had “slobber knocker” written all over it. Fujita, coming in with a 31-pound weight advantage, is every bit as famous for his iron chin as Silva is for his vicious striking.

After stalking each other around the ring, Silva started off the action with a flurry of punches that drove Fujita to the corner. Staggered, Fujita fell to his knees, only to have the Brazilian nail him with a kick to the head. In an act of desperation, the Japanese fighter grabbed his charging opponent’s legs and eventually muscled a takedown at the ropes.

Once repositioned to the center of the ring, Silva scrambled on the bottom and applied a strong armbar attempt from his back. After some tense moments, Fujita escaped back to the guard.

After trading more punches on the feet, Silva caught his opponent with a one-two combination at the ropes. Fujita went down, once again going after Silva’s legs to try to survive the onslaught, but PRIDE’s middleweight champion stayed on his feet and hammered his downed with uppercuts and soccer kicks. Eventually Fujita could take no more punishment and turned to the ropes. The referee stepped in and stopped the fight at the 9:21 mark of the first.

There was nothing pretty about this bout; it was just a plain, old fashion beatdown. I’m now fully convinced that Fujita has about 20 pounds of concrete in his skull. He absorbed a massive amount of punishment in the final 15 seconds before the referee stopped the fight.

Just seconds after leaving the ring, Fujita ran back to the interview space, totally unannounced, still sweating and breathing hard, and simply stated that it was a decisive loss and, “This isn’t the end, it isn’t over now.”

A battle of jiu-jitsu saw former PRIDE heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pictures) square off against Team Cro Cop member Fabricio Werdum (Pictures).

Nogueira did a great job of controlling the real estate in the first, pushing Werdum around the ring. With his long jab and crisp boxing the Brazilian Top Team member kept Werdum at bay, twice knocking him to the mat.

Werdum must have sensed that he was losing the stand-up war during the first intermission, because coming out for the second and third rounds, the jiu-jitsu black belt was all about the takedown, scoring it almost seemingly at will against his opponent.

On the ground, the two fighter’s jiu-jitsu prowess seemed to cancel each other’s out. Neither man got the upper hand on positions. At one point Nogueira had on a tight guillotine from his back, while later Werdum went for a Kimura and then an arm-triangle attempt.

Both guys were fairly active on the mat, and in the last 15 seconds of the bout there were too many transitions to count. The fight went the distance and Nogueira took the unanimous decision.

Since his lost to Mirko Filipovic (Pictures) last October, American Josh Barnett (Pictures) has been on a roll, with victories over Kazuhiro Nakamura (Pictures) and Aleksander Emelianenko (Pictures). This time around the catch wrestler had to face off against iron-chinned striker Mark Hunt (Pictures).

Going into this bout, one had the feeling that if Barnett was going to win this one it would be on the ground. Mark Hunt (Pictures) has come a long way since his debut in PRIDE a little over two years ago, but he is still nowhere near as well rounded as the former UFC heavyweight champion.

The two fighters came to a clinch early on, with Barnett scoring a takedown. From here, the American fighter scurried to the side, looking for a Kimura. Hunt fought off the attempt, but eventually Barnett threw his leg over his opponent’s head, pinning his arm and shoulders to the mat. With Hunt unable to escape, Barnett took his arm and applied the Kimura for the tapout victory.

Backstage, Barnett said that he was more than confident to stand and trade with Hunt, but that would have been playing into this opponent’s hands. Rather, he decided to use his opponent’s lack of ground game to his advantage.

Of all the fighters moving on to the semifinal— “Cro Cop,” Barnett, Nogueira and Silva — only “Cro Cop” has fought every man, beating Barnett, drawing with Silva in a special rules match, and losing to Nogueira.

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